How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

The Next Generation

It feels a little strange to be writing about being the daughter of parenting guru Adele Faber. As a young mother I was not eager to discuss my illustrious background. I was trying to survive each day on that crazy roller coaster of life with toddlers. At home, one moment would be pure joy as my little boy mastered the leap from sofa to beanbag chair; the next was narrowly averted tragedy as he attempted to make the game more interesting by leaping over his helpless infant brother. At the playground, we moms would beam fondly as our children happily zipped down the slide together, and then rush to separate them as one landed with a foot in the other one’s face and the offended party retaliated with a bite that elicited shrieks of pain and outrage.

I remember one miserable outing to the mall when my son was about two. He was going through a period where he hated to have his hand held. He needed to be free! The mall was crowded that day. As Dan eagerly darted off to see some shiny thing that caught his eye, I grabbed his arm. I was terrified that I would lose him. As soon as he felt my grip he started to struggle. I held on tighter. I was hurting him! He began to yell and twist.

I scooped my now hysterical child up in my arms. As I walked rapidly toward the exit with my kicking, screaming prisoner, my eyes darted anxiously around, anticipating an encounter with a mall security guard, accusing me of kidnapping a child. I actually thought about giving a false name. What if I said my name is Joanna Faber, and then somehow it got around that I was the daughter of a child-rearing expert? I would be humiliated and my mother discredited!

I had a group of friends, moms of toddlers and babies, who would get together on a regular basis for group “playdates.” It was really more of a playdate for the adults. The kids would mostly play on their own, when they weren’t battling over toy possession. Even though I had a close relationship with these friends, I stayed undercover. I was afraid that if I admitted that my own mother had written a book about child-rearing, I’d be looked upon with suspicion. They’d think I was judging them as they struggled with their uncooperative toddlers. And worse yet, they would judge me as they watched me struggle. “Her mother wrote a book about parent-child communication? Humph!” I imagined them thinking.

My anonymity was not fated to last. During one gathering, my friend Cathy said to me, “Joanna, you have to read this book I have. I’m sure you’d love it. It’s just your style. Everything in it reminds me of how you talk to your kids. It’s called How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.

I was startled. I had no plan for this! I mumbled, “Yeah, my mom and her friend Elaine wrote that book.” Cathy was astonished. Her face lit up. “Oh, one of the authors is Adele Faber! I can’t believe I never noticed that. Hey, everybody, listen up. Joanna’s mother wrote this great book about child-rearing and she never told us!”

And so I was outed.

A little while later Cathy told me she was organizing a series of lectures at her church. She asked me if I would give a talk about growing up as the daughter of Adele Faber. The date she mentioned was several months in the future, so I happily agreed. Surely I would think of something to say by then! As the date drew nearer with frightening rapidity, I began to think that maybe the church group would disband or the pipes would burst and flood the building, or I would get sick—something disastrous enough to cancel the speech but not really hurt anybody. What was I thinking? How can I present myself to this group of people as the product of ideal parenting? It’s just plain weird! Am I supposed to have come out perfectly? And to be able to effortlessly parent my own children?

Finally, I realized that I could do this. I didn’t have to be perfect. All I had to do was share the skills I used every day with my family. There is no such thing as a calm, conflict-free life with young children. I was expecting too much. What I had was pretty darn useful—the skills to deal with all those conflicts and survive with good feelings and good relationships intact.

I started out by admitting to my audience that I had in fact been raised by a mom who respected her children’s feelings, encouraged our autonomy, and used creative problem-solving rather than punishment for our conflicts. I grew up listening to and discussing all kinds of stories of human interaction with her, and immersed myself from a very young age in her library of books: Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person; Haim Ginott, Between Parent and Child; Virginia Axline, Dibs: In Search of Self; Herbert Kohl, 36 Children; John Holt, How Children Learn, and many others were all devoured by me as a preteen. From a very early age I had decided I was going to teach, to work with children and heal any wounds the world had inflicted on them. I was also inspired by my father, who was a guidance counselor in an inner-city school and ran a college-bound program for disadvantaged young people.

As a young child I remember saving up the frustrations of my school day to tell my mother. I knew that I could bear it when the teacher was mean, or some terrible injustice occurred on the playground, because when I got home I could tell my mom. She’d listen to my outrage, and I would be soothed and strengthened for the next assault. Even as a little girl I noticed that other parents were different, and I remember wondering how other kids got by without having anyone to listen to their sorrows.

I entered the working world as a teacher in an elementary school in West Harlem. I was determined that my skills and my understanding of human nature would lead to great things. Of course, I met challenges there that humbled me, but I still maintained my basic belief that my abilities were sound. It was just that some of these kids were so damaged by their parents that it was hard to get through to them.

I was sure that when I had my own kids, and raised them the right way from the start, it would be smooth sailing. There would be no damage to undo. I remember sitting with a fellow teacher who had her four-year-old daughter at work that day. The little girl was sobbing because her mother had just slapped her for picking up a lollipop that had dropped on the dirty floor. My colleague said to me, “You think it’s so easy. Just wait till you have a kid of your own and that sweet little thing just outright defies your authority. Then you’ll see what you can do with all your theories.”

I thought to myself, “How wrong you are! When I have a daughter of my own, I’ll never treat her like that. I’ll respect and celebrate her independent little spirit. I am not like you, with your authoritarian approach to motherhood!”

Then at one point I jumped off that cliff of no return and created little humans of my own who would live with me all day and keep me up all night. And, finally, I was brought to my knees. Parenthood was just so relentless. You never get to go home at the end of a good day’s work. I found my voice reaching that high, desperate pitch as I formulated classic, non-self-esteem-enhancing statements such as:

“What is the matter with you?”

“I’ve told you a million times!”

“How could you do that to your brother?”

And the reprehensible:

“Okay, that’s it. I’m going to leave without you.” (And wishing I really could do it).

Also, the ever-helpful philosophical question:

“Why did you do that when I just told you not to?”

Somehow I had imagined that when my children got over being babies and were able to walk and talk and grab things they would be a little bit more reasonable. They certainly wouldn’t kick or bite or shove their little brother when they had been raised in such a gentle and accepting environment.

Even though most of the skills my mother had to learn as a whole new language were second nature to me, when it came to being on the front line of parenthood day and night, I still needed to review my material. Sure, many times all the right words flowed effortlessly from my lips, as my friend Cathy pointed out when she noticed my “style” of parenting. But at other times, worn out and frustrated by the constant barrage of the needs of three small children, the right words did not flow. I would lash out with supremely unhelpful outbursts that touched off emotional eruptions and meltdowns in my children. And that is when I really appreciated those skills. Because with children you always get another chance. You can be confident that the latest battle over who gets the red cup, or who knocked over the blocks, will not be the last. And knowing what to do with that second chance is what saves me every time!

After the speech at the church, there was a lot of excitement among the audience. A group of parents wanted me to lead a workshop series. And so I was launched into the whole business of helping parents communicate with their children while still finding my own way through that challenging maze. Here are some of the memorable moments from each of our meetings.

Session 1—Acknowledging Feelings

I was afraid that the parents would be disappointed with our first meeting. My message was a cliché. Acknowledge feelings. Who hasn’t heard of that? I imagined them rolling their eyes at one another. Is this what we got a babysitter for? To my great relief, they found it challenging. There is a wide gap between knowing something intellectually and applying it on the battlefield under fire.

One of the objections parents had to accepting feelings was that often the feelings their children expressed were so downright unacceptable! And yet they were willing to suspend disbelief and give it a try. This first story is from Max’s mom. She was often at her wits’ end. Her four-year-old son had been diagnosed with “oppositional defiant disorder.” He was constantly challenging her and had many tantrums every day. A therapist had helped them to set up a chart with points and rewards for good behavior, but so far it hadn’t made a difference.

After our first session Max’s mom came back with this report to the group:

Max at the Mall

Last Saturday was cold and rainy. I made plans with a friend to meet her and her children at an indoor play area at the mall. When we got to the place, Max stopped at the entrance and refused to budge. He declared, “I’m not going in there. It’s boring and stupid and dumb!”

I thought, “Uh-oh, here we go again with another tantrum.” I almost said, “What do you mean? You wanted to come! Look at all the great things there are to play with. All the kids in there are having so much fun.”

Instead, I took a deep breath and said, “So, you don’t like anything about this place. All these slides and trampolines and cars and ride-on trucks look boring and stupid and dumb to you!”

He said, “YEAH!” and then he went in to play. I was stunned. Later, when he came out, he looked up at me and said, “You understand me.” He’s never said anything like that before.

Picture This

A few days later I received this e-mail from Max’s mother:

Max has a lot of very strong feelings. I’ve always tried to calm him down, but now I realize it really helps when I am dramatic with him. Yesterday he was looking forward to a playdate. At the very last minute the mom called to postpone, saying that her daughter was too tired to handle coming here.

Max was so upset! He let out a huge wail. I went over to the chalkboard and said, “You sound so disappointed! You were really looking forward to your playdate.” I drew a stick figure of a boy with enormous tears (the tears were bigger than his face) flowing into a gigantic puddle. Max wanted me to draw the puddle bigger and bigger. Then he put the whole picture inside a giant teardrop and wrote the words SAD and BOO HOO!! There wasn’t an empty spot on that chalkboard.

Finally, we talked about what to do to feel better. He said he could call another friend, and he did. While he was waiting for the other friend, he told me how lucky he was, because now he had two playdates—one today and one another day with the first friend.

Maybe this seems like a lot of trouble to go through to acknowledge a feeling. But in the past I would have tried to stop him from making such a big deal over nothing and he would have been impossible for the rest of the day.

Calm Down?

One parent told the group that this “feeling stuff ” wasn’t working in her home. Sometimes her daughter became even more enraged when she accepted her feelings. I asked the mom for an example. “Well,” she said, “like just this morning. Megan was pitching a fit because her pink sneakers were wet and I told her she couldn’t wear them to school. I kept my cool and said, “Megan, I can see that you’re disappointed. You wanted to wear those shoes, but they’re too wet.” She screamed even louder and started kicking at me!

I listened to Megan’s mother’s soothing, singsong voice and said, “Your words are telling me you understand, but your tone of voice is saying, ‘Shhhh . . . Calm down. It can’t be that bad. There’s nothing to be so upset about.’”

One of the other mothers piped up, “Calm down? Those two words are not allowed in my house. When I’m angry, telling me to calm down makes me even angrier. If my husband says that to me, I will rip his head off, and he knows it!”

“Well,” said the first mom, “I was trying to use a calm voice to calm her down. I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire.”

If you want to calm a child down, it helps to try to match her strong feelings rather than minimize them: “Oh no! You were planning to wear your pink shoes and now they’re all wet! What a disappointment! Those are your favorites! Darn it! I wish we had time to dry them. Do you think if we put them over the heater now they might be ready when you get home?”

And sometimes a choice helps a child move on. “What should we do for now? Do you want to wear your purple sneakers or your sandals?”


A few weeks later Megan’s mom reported this conversation:

Megan was starting to melt down because she was hungry. I told her (calmly!) that she needed to be patient and that dinner would be ready in just five minutes. The whining got louder.

Then I remembered about matching the emotion, so I threw myself on the floor next to her and said, “Five minutes is a LONG time to wait when you’re starving! It feels like you could almost die of hunger in that time!” I pounded on the floor with my fist. “We need food now!” Megan giggled and said, “You’re silly, Mommy.” She really enjoyed the drama. It completely changed her mood.

Two (or Three) at a Time

A nursery school teacher in my group wondered about accepting feelings when there’s more than one child involved. It seems like such a one-on-one activity. Here’s what she had to say after giving it a try:

“I used to put myself in charge of settling the kids’ conflicts. That often ended up with one unhappy child sulking in a corner and the other gloating over having won. Now I just listen and reflect back what each child is saying. I’m like the narrator. Here’s an example from last week:

Jared, you didn’t like it when Jose grabbed that block from you!

And, Jose, you needed that block to support your racetrack.

Ah, so, Jared, you were going to use that block on your tower . . . I see.

And, Jose, you feel it isn’t fair, because Jared has a lot of blocks and you just need that one.”

(Then, to my surprise, the coat-closet door pops open a crack and I hear a little voice say, “And Lily is in the closet because Jose stepped on my finger!”)

When I do this, most of the time the children finish saying their piece and then they just calm down and go off to play. I don’t even have to do anything. It’s really quite amazing. Sometimes I help them find a solution (Can you help Jose find another block for his bridge?), but often just being heard is enough.

Granola Grief

One of the parents declared:

“Giving in fantasy is my favorite skill. Listen to what happened at my house when I tried it. Kristen, my four-year-old, only likes peanut butter–flavored granola bars. Her older sister, Jenna, was busy polishing off the last peanut butter bar from the variety pack. As Kristen started to cry, Jenna quickly shoved the whole bar into her mouth.

I gave Jenna a disapproving look. She scooped a damp wad from her cheek and offered it to her sister. No good. Too late! Kristen was screaming and sobbing. I assured her that we’d buy more as soon as possible, but she was not impressed. She continued to scream. I told her she had to use her indoor voice. She screamed louder. My eardrums were breaking, so I took her outside into the backyard. Now the whole neighborhood got to share in the grief ! On and on it went until I finally remembered . . . “Oh yeah, give in fantasy.”

In my most dramatic voice I said, “Kristen, do you know what I wish?” She stopped crying to say, “What?” I looked around the yard for inspiration. Aha, got it. “I wish we had a granola bar as big as that picnic table.” Kristen’s eyes grew wide. She said, “No, Mom. That would be too big.”

“Well, then . . . I wish we had a granola bar as big as that rock over there.” Kristen sighed happily, “That would be good!”

Crisis over. I guess having someone know just how much you want something can be almost as good as getting the real thing.

Take Me to Oz

One mother wondered if acknowledging feelings could possibly work with her nine-year-old son, who had been diagnosed with autism. Robbie had serious cognitive delays and most of his service providers were sure that a behavioral system with simple, concrete rewards and punishments was the only way to help such a child get himself under control. “I don’t know,” I hated to admit. “I don’t have any experience with this.”

Here’s what she reported the following week:

Robbie got it into his head that he wanted to see The Wizard of Oz on Broadway. He’s watched the movie dozens of times and has memorized all the songs. I explained to him over and over that it wasn’t playing in theaters right now, but that didn’t help. One of the issues we have is that when Robbie wants something he just can’t let it go. The anger and the crying can last for hours. He was starting to get really wound up when I figured, I’ll try the fantasy thing.”

I patted the bed and said, “Robbie, do you want to come on my magic carpet with me and go visit Oz?”

Robbie ran to the bed and snuggled in beside me. We “flew” over Oz. I looked down over the edge of the bed and started pointing out the characters. “I think I see the Scarecrow down there. What is he doing? And is that the Cowardly Lion?”

“I see the Tin Man!” Robbie yelled.

“Oh no, he’s not moving,” I said. “I think he’s rusted.”

We visited all the characters and had a lovely time together. I felt good that I was able to meet his needs instead of just trying to suppress his endless frustration. It’s so much better than offering him a star on a chart for controlling his temper, especially when he really can’t control himself, and then he has to be doubly upset because he didn’t get the star!

I Hate School

This next example came from the mother of a child with Asperger’s syndrome:

Justin has been giving me a hard time about going to school for over a year now. Transitions are difficult for him. We were having terrible mornings. He would cry and scream and have to be dragged to the car. I’ve been making changes—working with his teachers and reducing his school hours—but I’ve also started acknowledging his feelings. At the same time, I’ve stopped trying to reassure him and push away his anxiety. I used to say things like “You know I’ll pick you up at twelve thirty,” or “You know you have to go to school,” or “You’ll feel better once you’re there,” or “You’ll see your friends,” or “You love doing math at school”—all of which just enraged him.

Here’s how it goes now (every day still):

Me: “Justin, time to put your jacket on for school, we’re going to the car.” (horrified pause)

Justin: “But I HATE SCHOOL!”

Me: “I KNOW! School is not your favorite place to be. You like being at home, playing with your cars . . . sigh . . . Well, here’s your jacket.”

Justin (coming to the front door) repeats: “It’s not my favorite place!” and puts on his jacket.

It’s funny. I think I used to do this a bit sarcastically (“Yeah, I know you hate it. I heard they torture kindergartners every afternoon”). Now that I know I don’t have to fix all his worries, I can completely and honestly accept his feelings. And I think he knows it.

More Questions

The parents continued to challenge me: Surely there are some feelings that are too insignificant to merit sympathy. “What about the kid who falls apart over the littlest thing? Someone brushed against his elbow? ‘OWOWOW! It hurts!’ Are we supposed to acknowledge the feelings of a kid who is just seeking attention? Won’t that encourage him to complain about ever more insignificant slights?”

A child’s day can be filled with all kinds of frustrations and emotionally intense experiences. (As four-year-old Max said after a long, tough morning of being cooperative and well-behaved at preschool, “Mom, I am freaking out!”) Maybe that little brush of the elbow was the proverbial last straw. Maybe it was an excuse to weep a little.

If a child just wants attention and comfort, we can just give it to him. If we don’t, he may well seek other, more annoying strategies for getting our attention!

You can scoop him up and say, “Where does it hurt? This needs a kiss.” You can keep a special supply of Band-Aids dedicated to invisible injuries. A child who feels low can have two raisin “pills” or a teaspoon of grape juice “medicine.” It is enormously cheering to have a few moments with an adult who ladles out a little emotional first aid in times of need.

And one last issue: “Often I will see that my daughter is upset, but when I ask her what’s wrong she says, ‘Nothing.’ The more I question her, the less she will tell me.”

It makes an enormous difference to a child when we accept her feelings from the get-go, without any questions. Instead of asking what’s wrong, we can simply say, “You look sad,” or “Something upset you,” or “Seems like you had a rough day.”

Statements like these help a child relax and feel free to share. She doesn’t have to defend her feelings as she would if we had said, “Why do you feel sad?” She can talk to us if she wants to or just take comfort from our understanding.

I remember feeling the power of this skill of accepting the feelings without questions when I was teaching at PS 161 in Manhattan. One morning, as I checked in at the main office, I saw a tangle of teachers and secretaries surrounding a weeping sixth grader. The adults were desperate to find out what was wrong. They took turns firing questions at the child: “Why are you crying? What’s wrong? Did something happen to you? Are you okay?” With every question, the girl sobbed harder, until she was almost breathless.

I took her arm and steered her out of the circle of attentive adults. “I’ll sit with her,” I said. We sat in a corner and I waited a bit, then I said, “Something really upset you.” The girl started to talk, telling me that she had heard a car backfire on the street, and she thought it was a gunshot. Someone on her block had been shot that weekend, and now she thought they were shooting at her. “That must have been really scary,” I offered. “Yeah” she agreed, as her breathing slowed and became less spasmodic.

If I had any doubt as to the power of my simple acceptance, it was quickly erased. Two adults in the office, seeing that the girl had calmed down, approached and started questioning us. “Did you find out what happened?” . . . “Is she okay now?” . . . “What was wrong?” The girl immediately went back into her panicked sobbing. I said, “She got scared, she’s going to be okay,” and the well-meaning adults backed away.

I felt very grateful at that moment that I had this little key to help a stressed and panicked child. The urge to question is so strong. If we find out what the problem is, we feel we have a chance to fix it. But often the fix is simple acceptance. Even if this girl hadn’t told me what was wrong, I feel sure that having an adult just sit with her and acknowledge her distress without question would have been the most healing remedy.

Session 2—Engaging Cooperation

One issue that jumped out at me when I started conducting workshops was that parents aren’t just worried about getting through the day. Sure that’s a top priority, but there’s always the underlying anxiety: What kind of child am I raising? How did I create this little monster who has no sense of responsibility, hits his sister, tells lies, won’t clean up his messes, whines, and is generally about as cooperative as an angry hornet? He was such a sweet little baby! Where did I go wrong?

I remember how I felt when my own son Danny, at two years of age, figured out a new game to play with our small, elderly terrier mix. He would approach the sleeping dog, swing back his chubby little foot, and kick. The poor dog would jump up in alarm, and Danny would laugh delightedly at the excitement he had created. What kind of a human being kicks a dog for fun? What kind of a mother raised such a horror?

It helps to keep in mind that a two-year-old doesn’t yet fully understand that other people (and creatures) have feelings. He understands that his leg hurts when he is kicked, but he doesn’t really get it thatyour leg hurts when he kicks you. He isn’t feeling any pain! Sure he’ll cry if you yell at him, but that’s because it’s scary and unpleasant to be yelled at.

That knowledge freed me from feeling bad about myself as a mom, or angry at my son, and allowed me to focus on helping my child figure out a better way to interact with the dog. I stuck to the simple formula—acknowledge the feeling, limit the action. And throw in a choice to make it easier to move on.

“I see you’re in a kicking mood, Danny. Dogs are not for kicking. Dogs like to be touched very gently! Let’s see . . . what can you kick? Would you like to kick a balloon, or your foam ball?”

And of course it helps to remember that no matter what approach you take with a two-year-old you are sure to have to repeat yourself endlessly (and so I did!). I am pleased to report that Dan grew up to be a person who is exceedingly gentle with animals as well as people. He is the guy who will catch a wasp in a cup and put it outside rather than swat it with a flyswatter. And by three years of age he did learn to stroke the dog gently, to the great relief of his mother!

The parents in my group came up with lots of creative solutions with their own children once they abandoned the notion that their kids should behave out of a sense of moral obligation.

One of the favorite methods for engaging the cooperation of their young children was to be playful rather than stern. Kids love play. The day can get pretty grim with all the things they have to do. It is a nice relief to be goofy. For a preschooler it’s a safe bet that making an inanimate object talk will be irresistible. They’re eager to help socks that plead, “Won’t somebody please put a foot in me. I feel so flat and empty”; toys that whine, “I’m lonely here on the floor. I want to be in the closet with my friends”; soap that sobs, “Poor me, I need some dirty hands to wash!”

The Hungry Bag

In the land of toddlers you can beg, you can threaten, and you can punish, but there is no way you can compel your child to pick up those blocks. One mom tried. She was so annoyed with her son for refusing to clean up his mess that in a fit of rage she found herself stuffing blocks into his hand and clamping down hard on his fingers so he couldn’t fling them away, as she forced him to drop each block into a bag. Not exactly the most efficient way of cleaning up! After our session here’s what she told us:

Yesterday another battle was brewing over the damn blocks. This time I had a brain wave. I held out the bag and said in a deep, scratchy voice, “I am so hungry . . . I want to eat blocks!” and we were off. The bag really liked purple ones . . . He had been waiting all day to eat that green one over there . . . “Hmm, they taste like broccoli . . . Not baaad . . . Oh no, I’m getting full now . . . No,don’t make me eat the pink ones, they make me sick, please no, I’ll vomit!” My eight-year-old daughter came over to “play” and made the cleanup even faster. Today they were both dying to do it again, and now the bag has a name—Boris, the hungry bag. Long may he last!

My personal favorite skill in this session is the one where we parents get to express our own feelings. The parents in my group seem to expect themselves to be endlessly patient and feel terribly guilty when, time after time, they fail.

A mother says to me, “You would have known just what to say. You would have been calm. You wouldn’t have lost it like I did!” I am taken aback. Have I given the impression that I’m a calm person? Nothing could be further from the truth, I protest. “When I get frustrated my volume goes straight up. If you had been in my house last night (or even outside my house!), you would have heard me pounding on the bathroom door where my teenage son was taking an endless shower. You would have heard me yelling, “I don’t like being late! Five people are waiting for us! I hate leaving people hanging! We have to leave NOW!”

We don’t need to stay calm. We can express ourselves with all the heat we’re feeling, as long as we remember to describe our own feelings and give information, instead of attacking our children.

When your kids get a little older you’ll be grateful you’ve taught them the skill of simply giving information, because you’ll often find yourself on the receiving end.

Recently, I asked my son Dan if I could borrow his new GPS. He was showing me how to program it, and I kept tapping the screen sharply with my finger. Dan said to me, “All it needs is a touch.” I kept on tapping. Dan, seeing his prized new $100 purchase continue to be abused, repeated more forcefully, “Mom, the screen is sensitive! Watch. It responds to a very light touch.” This time I got it.

Imagine if he had said to me, “MOM, what is the matter with you? You’re going to break my GPS! You are being way too rough. Let me do it for you.” Clearly, that would be a disrespectful way to talk to a parent! But where do kids learn how to talk to their parents? At least partly from how their parents talk to them.

Close the Bar!

Some of the parents particularly loved the idea of writing notes.

The mother of a sixteen-year-old reported:

David will not go to bed without doing his workout, which includes several sets of pull-ups. Unfortunately, the only place in the house that has a doorway with a tall enough ceiling to mount the pull-up bar is right outside our bedroom. I’ve pleaded with him, again and again, to do the pull-ups earlier so he doesn’t wake us just as we’ve fallen asleep. He promises to make an effort, but nothing changes. The next night there he is, doing his late-night workout again.

Finally, I wrote a note and hung it on the pull-up bar.

The Management.

It’s been a week, and so far he’s finished his exercises before ten every night. I asked him how he managed that, and he just gave me a funny look and said, “Well, I have to get it done before the bar closes, Mom.”

I don’t quite understand why the written word seems to have so much more power than the spoken one, but it is working for us!

And another parent found that note-writing helped when her son was too upset to talk.

I’m Not Going to School!

Last night Kevin got really mad because his team lost the Super Bowl and he didn’t win any of the quarters on the football pool we did. So he yelled, “I’m not going to school tomorrow!” and went up to his room and wrote a note:

Hi I’m not going to school oh and Tak everything I have away

From Kevin

Ps. I hate you

Needless to say, I was not looking forward to the morning and getting him ready for school. So I wrote a note back and left it on his bed:

Dear Kevin,

There is no need to take everything you have away. You didn’t do anything wrong. You are just really sad because the Cardinals lost and you didn’t win the football pool. It is okay to be mad. Especially since your team lost last year, too. You probably don’t want to go to school because you don’t want to be embarrassed.

Write back,
Love, Mom

Then this morning I went in to make sure he was awake, and saw he had written back:

Yeh I gess so that’s what happened last year. But I still don’t like football.

So I pretended I thought he was still sleeping and wrote back to him and left his room:

Dear Kevin,

I wouldn’t like football either—why can’t your team win? Maybe someday you can play and help your team win.

Love, Mom

PS We need to get ready for school

After about five minutes he was dressed and ready to go to school. Not in a great mood, but decent.

Session 3—Alternatives to Punishment

The idea that we need to punish in order to teach is deeply ingrained in most of us. We feel it is part of our duty as parents. I’m always a little bit nervous about making a case against such a powerful social norm. So I begin the session by asking parents if any of them can recall being punished as children. Here are some of the responses I’ve gotten:

“I was grounded but it didn’t stick. We got away with a lot.”

“When my parents grounded me it was pathetic. There was no way they could control me. I just lost more respect for them.”

“My mom hit me with a spoon. It didn’t stop me.”

“My dad hit me with a belt. It didn’t stop me.”

“When I was hit, I just got sneakier.”

“My mom used to make me put soap in my mouth. It just made me mad.”

“I was put in a corner. I felt ashamed. It was scary.”

Then one father threw me a curveball:

“My mother always spanked us when we were bad. We respected her and followed her rules. I spanked my son whenever he was bad. It works. But now I have a daughter, and when I spank her it makes her so angry that she gets worse. So I’d like to learn your alternatives. Also, we now have a foster child, and we’re not allowed to spank him, so this is very important to me!”

After I hear from the parents, I pull out a newspaper clipping I’d saved and read excerpts to the group. I found this article striking because a teenager died when his friends were so focused on avoiding punishment that they neglected to take him to the hospital when he was severely injured.

A Nightmare for Real

Teen athlete’s death, actions of others shake entire region.

A 17-year-old popular high school student athlete died Tuesday night, his devastated family by his side, after being taken off life support five hours earlier. Rob Viscome had been in a coma at the Westchester medical center since hitting his head at an impromptu after-school beer party at a friend’s home. . . .

The teens lied about where the party took place and cleaned up evidence. . . . Many of the witnesses gave conflicting stories. It is still not clear why they didn’t call police or how long the teen lay bleeding before friends finally drove him to the hospital. . . .

We pray that young persons, despite possible short-term consequences with their parents, will be more apt to dial 911 if one of them becomes injured or sick. Precious moments and precious lives may be at stake.*

Why would we be surprised that in a moment of crisis our children’s first thoughts turn to self-protection, rather than how to fix the problem? We have trained them to expect that our response to their misdeeds is to punish them.

An incident of much smaller import occurred to my son when he was in fifth-grade English class. A girl seated near the teacher’s desk put her foot up and accidentally knocked a snow globe to the floor, where it shattered. Everyone froze, except Dan. He jumped up and began to pick up the broken glass. Of course, no good deed goes unpunished! The teacher erupted in a rage at him, thinking that he was the culprit. She screamed at him so furiously that he wasn’t even able to get out that he hadn’t done it. In the face of this onslaught, no one else confessed.

What I came away with from this experience was that when faced with a problem, my kid was the one who reacted instantly to fix it, because that’s how he was raised. Everyone else drew back in fear (as well they should have!).

The challenge for us is to find some response to misbehavior that actually inspires change, instead of hanging on to the old ways that cause resentment and, more important, distract from the real problem.

But parents continue to wonder, “Shouldn’t there be consequences for children who continue to misbehave? How will they learn if they don’t suffer for their crimes?”

My objection to the word “consequences” is that it is so often used as a new label to stick on an old, self-defeating idea. In the mind of the parent, “No TV for a week” becomes a “consequence” rather than a punishment. It doesn’t change the dynamic. The child does something wrong, and the parent thinks of some way to make the child feel bad in the hope that he will learn to behave better. Whether we call it a consequence or a punishment, it doesn’t get us the result we’re looking for. We need to decide what we want our children to think and feel when they do something wrong. Do we want them to focus on which TV shows they will miss, how resentful they are at being grounded, what hopelessly bad people they are . . . or do we want them to think about how to fix the mistake, make it better, what to do next time?

Parents were still skeptical. “So are you saying that even consequences aren’t allowed? How about when a child deliberately disobeys? Then what are we left with? That’s too permissive for me! Don’t we need some kind of bottom line?”

I’m not suggesting that we give up our authority as parents. We can assert our authority by taking action. We can take action to protect a child from harm, to protect him from hurting others, to protect property from being damaged, to protect ourselves or our relationship. We can state our values and give choices. We can give our children a way to fix the problem or to make amends. And we can do it all without punishing.

Here are some examples of parents taking action to protect, rather than imposing “consequences.”

Protecting your property:

• Throwing blocks can break windows. I’m putting the wooden blocks away for now.

• I’m not willing to lend any more tools. I’ll feel better about sharing my tools again when the drill you brought to your friend’s house last week is returned or replaced.

• I’m very upset that the car was taken without permission. I’m holding on to the keys until we can come up with a system that we’re both comfortable with. Let’s take awhile to think about it.

Protecting others:

• No hitting! I can see how angry you are with your brother. I’m taking you (or him) into the kitchen with me right now so that nobody gets hurt.

• Throwing sand can injure people’s eyes. Let’s go play on the grass for now.

• I’m holding on to your paintball gun until you can come up with a way to assure me that it will be used safely. Pointing it at people’s ears is too dangerous.

Protecting yourself:

• I’m too tired to read bedtime stories after nine o’clock. We can try again tomorrow night as long as you’re ready for bed on time.

• We’re going home now. I don’t want to do any more shopping today. I know you need clothes for your camping trip, but right now I’m too upset at being spoken to so sarcastically, especially in front of the salesperson.

• Last time we went to the lake, I was really angry that I had to yell and beg for fifteen minutes to get you all out of the water when it was closing time. I’m not willing to go back until we come up with a better plan for leaving.

Protecting your child:

• I’m putting the bike away for now. I can see you’re in no mood to wear a helmet, and I’m too worried about injury to let you ride without one. What can we find to play with that doesn’t require headgear?

• I can’t give you permission to go to another unsupervised party. I’m sure you know why. If you’d like, you can invite some friends over to our house.

Protecting your relationship with your child:

• I need the house to be clean before the guests come tonight. I’ll take you to your friend’s house as soon as this clutter is put away. Yes, I hear you saying that I could do it myself because they’re myfriends. The problem is that I’d feel very resentful if I had to clean up your stuff while you were out playing, and I don’t want to feel that way about my daughter!

• I’m very upset right now! I don’t like the way you’re talking to me, and I don’t like the way I’m talking to you! I’m going into my bedroom now and closing the door. I need some time to cool down.

These kinds of statements let your children know, without attacking them, that you respect your own feelings as well as theirs, and that you have your limits. Not only does it motivate them to cooperate and make amends, it helps teach them how to stand their ground respectfully with their own friends. In most of our relationships we don’t have the power to punish people, but we often do have the power to protect ourselves and others.

As I drove home from the meeting, I thought about the time Dan spent the afternoon with his friends exploring the woods behind our house. He was twelve then. That evening he said to me, “Mom, it’s really weird. Steve and Henry wanted to climb those rocks by the ice cave, and I told them I didn’t think we should do it.

“Steve said, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be okay.’ And I said to him, ‘I know if my mom were here I’d be saying the exact same thing that you’re saying. But I just don’t feel comfortable with you guys climbing up there. Because if you got hurt I’d feel responsible.’ And they stopped! I think I’m getting to be like a grown-up. I could never imagine myself saying something like that.”

I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t imagine it either. My reckless little boy was telling someone else to be careful? But he had the language for it. He couldn’t have given orders to his friends. (“Don’t you dare do that!”) Or threatened them. (“I’ll ground you!”) But he knew how to respectfully describe his feelings and state his limits (who knew he even had limits!). A useful tool in any relationship.

The next week, parents were eager to share the results of their experiments with alternatives to punishment.

Young Vandal

One of the workshop moms had a home that was a real showcase. It was filled with elegant furniture, plush white carpeting, and beautiful rugs. She also had Ivan, a destructive little three-year-old. He would use black marker on the couch cushions, the walls, the floor, and he’d poke at the pillows with scissors. Ivan was a menace. Whenever she wasn’t looking, he was redecorating. She would scold him and give him time-outs, but the behavior continued. Here’s what she reported:

The week after we had our alternative-to-punishment session, I caught Ivan cutting the fringes on one of my rugs. I grabbed the scissors from him and said, “I am very upset! This was the Oriental rug my grandmother gave me! Now the fringes are all messed up. I expect you to fix it.” I handed the scissors back to him, found a ruler, and placed it along the line of fringes. “This has to be cut very carefully to even it out.”

Ivan said, “I’m sorry, Mommy,” and carefully evened out the fringes while I held the ruler. The next day he spilled a drop of water on a tablecloth. He ran to me and said, “Mom, there’s water on the tablecloth. What can we do to fix it?”

I was astonished. My son has done a complete turnabout, from the destroyer to the fixer. I also took him on a special shopping trip to buy him art materials—all kinds of things for him to draw on, paint on, and cut. I keep the supplies in a special box for him, and there have been no art attacks on my house since.

A Big Mess

I have to admit, Andy is a pretty wild little four-year-old. I do understand that “boys will be boys.” I gave my parents a hard time in my day. Still, I want Andy to learn to face up to his bad behavior instead of running away. The day after our meeting on alternatives to punishment, I walked into the living room and saw white powder all over the floor. Apparently, Andy needed something to carry in his dump truck, and decided that his little sister’s baby powder would be a good cargo. I yelled, “Who made this big mess?”

Andy said, “Trouble!” and ran to hide behind the couch.

Then I remembered, and I changed tactics. I said, “Oh no, we have a problem. What should we do?”

Andy poked his head out from behind the couch. He yelled “Water!” and ran to the bathroom and came back with a wet paper towel.

The Little Green Man

I shared my own first attempt to introduce problem-solving to my toddler. (My mom told me he was probably much too young for this, but I was desperate.)

When Dan was two years and nine months old (I know this, because he was toilet trained at two years and eight months, and, yes, I was counting), we had our first formal problem-
solving session. I was the frustrated parent of a boy who, having shown his ability to deposit bodily fluids in the pot, had now lost interest in this activity. He would play, clutching himself until it was absolutely too late, and then let loose and pee freely on the carpet. He’d then happily climb up on the stool to reach the foam-action carpet cleaner and scrub brush to clean up the mess. If I tried to urge him to use the bathroom during the clutching period, he would vehemently protest that he did not need to go. This had gone on for a week. My long-awaited toilet-training triumph was crumbling before my eyes. I got out my pad and pencil and read aloud as I wrote:

The problem—Dan does not like to stop playing to go to the bathroom. Mom does not like peepee on the floor.

Dan asks, “What are you writing?”

“I’m writing down ideas to solve this problem . . . one, two, three, four.”

1. (I go first) Mom will remind Dan in a friendly way to go to the bathroom.

2. (Dan offers the next idea) Dan will clean the floor with carpet cleaner.

3. (My turn) Dan can wear diapers if he doesn’t want to pee in the potty (I’m hoping he won’t take this option).

4. (Dan is looking around the room. His gaze falls on a small plastic Statue of Liberty souvenir.) The little green man will tell me. He will say, “Peepee in the pot.”

I am thinking that this is not working, but I forge ahead. “Okay, let’s look at our ideas to see which ones we want to use and which we don’t like.”

1. Dan violently objects to a friendly reminder. I cross it out.

2. Mom objects. Carpet is getting too smelly.

3. Dan says okay to diapers, but Mom objects to her own idea.

4. The little green man. Dan thinks this is a good one, although Mom lacks conviction.

I post the list on the fridge and lie in wait for the next crotch-clutching incident. Finally, it happens. It’s dinnertime and Dan has no thought of leaving the table. He is content to squeeze and wiggle. I take Miss Liberty, put it to his ear, and whisper, “Peepee in the pot.” He takes the statue and whispers something back to it (I never found out what), and he went to the bathroom. Hallelujah!

For the next month or so I carry the little green man everywhere with me. He is my emissary to my son’s bladder. It caused me only one awkward social moment. Once, when I was rummaging through my pack, I found my Swedish friend giving me an odd look. She had spied the statue. “My, aren’t we getting patriotic lately. Should I be carrying the Swedish flag?”

Inappropriate Attire

Eight-year-old Carly has always been a tomboy. She absolutely hates getting dressed up. Usually I let her pick her own clothes. But last Sunday was my mother-in-law’s funeral. My husband was distraught, and so were the other children. His mom had been very close with them all. She was no long-distance grandmother. Carly chooses to stage a clothing revolt right before we get in the car. Instead of the outfit I had laid out for her, she came to the car in a stained T-shirt, jeans, and her Yankees cap. My husband was ready to give her a good, hard spanking.

I grabbed Carly and went inside. I told her that I knew she hated dress-up clothes. The problem, I said, is that Daddy is very sad about his mom dying. And to him and a lot of other people dressing up is a sign of respect. I can’t let you go to the funeral like this because it would make other people feel bad.

Carly didn’t say anything, but her bottom lip was pushed out and she wasn’t about to cave in. I said I’d bring her nice black pants (I wasn’t even making her wear a dress, mind you!) and two blouses to choose from. When we got there, she could change in the car. If she didn’t want to change, we would not be going into the funeral. I would wait outside in the car with her.

When we got there, Carly squirmed into the nice clothes and came in with us. Later on at the reception, I told her she could change back into her jeans, but she insisted that she liked her fancy outfit.

I was very relieved to be able to save the day when my husband was under so much stress! Describing our feelings and giving Carly a choice let her cooperate without losing face. She can be really tough. A direct confrontation would have been a disaster!

Finally, one parent who complained of being a short-order chef shared this experience:

Mealtime Misery

Mealtimes at my house are miserable. Josh, my five-year-old, will start to complain that he doesn’t want to eat the chicken. He says it’s disgusting, and I yell at him for being rude. Then the seven-year-old twins act up. If he isn’t eating it, why do we have to? We end up in a big fight every night.

I decided to give problem-solving a try. I told the kids I worked hard at making dinner and it hurt my feelings when they said it was disgusting. Josh said he didn’t want to be forced to eat something he didn’t like. I realized that one of the reasons he was being so rude was that I was giving him no choice. He would be willing to be polite if I would back off a little.

I told them we needed to write down all our ideas for making dinnertime more pleasant for everyone. They were excited about that. Here are the ideas we all finally agreed on:

Josh would be allowed to make himself a sandwich for dinner if it was something he felt he really couldn’t eat. But he had to do it ahead of time. No complaining about food and jumping up to visit the refrigerator during the meal.

The twins didn’t want to make their own sandwiches. They didn’t really mind the food. But they decided to make a rule of “no singing at the dinner table.” That would make mealtimes more pleasant, because the singing made the kids annoyed with one another and usually led to fighting.

We also decided to put a suggestion sheet on the refrigerator where they could write their dinner ideas, and at least once a week I would make something from the sheet.

So far, it’s been working beautifully. The kids don’t complain anymore, and my son makes his own sandwich two or three times a week. I no longer dread mealtimes!

With only a few minutes of our session left, a parent waved her hand. “Wait, how about homework?” Others immediately chimed in: “Yeah, that’s the worst!” . . . “Torture every night!” It was time to go home, but we all decided to schedule one extra meeting before moving on.


I was glad we’d be devoting an evening to this topic. It’s hard to think of a single issue that has caused more children to melt down and more parents to tear out their hair in frustration than homework.

I told the group that when I was a kid homework didn’t exist in kindergarten. It was barely introduced in first and second grade. We had an occasional assignment along the lines of “If you would like, you can bring in something to talk about for show-and-tell.” Decades later when I sent my own children to school, I encountered a whole new world. They came home from kindergarten with nightly assignments, such as “Write the letter B ten times. Then draw four objects that begin with B.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

I remember watching my Dan tearing through the paper with his eraser as he struggled to draw the bicycle that existed in his head. There was no way I could convince my sobbing son to “Please, just draw a ball,” instead of an infernally complicated two-wheeler. That was just the second day of kindergarten! In grade school it got worse. Pages of long division problems, five-paragraph persuasive essays, science webquests, all designed to bring a parent with a tired child to the edge of insanity.

Eventually, I discovered that every parent imagines that his or her child is the only one having such trouble. Surely the other children are happily scribbling cute little drawings of bubbles, balls, and bottles, while your own is becoming mentally unhinged. Some children may handle homework with relatively little stress, but I haven’t met many. There’s no simple solution. We need to tackle the problem from all angles.

“I’m ready to try anything,” said the mom who had introduced the topic. “Please, can we use my son as an example?” Without hesitation, she launched into her tale of woe:

Tommy started sixth grade this year. He did okay for the first quarter, but then things started falling apart. There is so much homework, and it takes him so long to do it, that he has just given up. He has difficulty with his handwriting and it is very slow and tedious for him to write out assignments. We have massive fights about it every night.

He has had to give up playdates because he won’t finish his homework first, and I know he won’t do it afterward. I’ve taken away his Xbox and his TV-watching privileges. I’ve yelled at him until I’m blue in the face. I don’t know what else to do. Last night I followed him upstairs, saying, “Tommy, you have to do this penmanship homework. It’s very important!” Tommy snatched the sheet from my hand and said, “No . . . I . . . don’t!” as he ripped it into little pieces and threw them down the stairs.

The school called me in to a conference with his teachers and the guidance counselor. They told me that Tommy was in danger of repeating the grade. Every time he misses a homework, he gets a zero. Even if he passes all his tests, he may still fail. I was too upset to say much. I just told them I’d talk to my son and get back to them.

Everyone in the group had something to say. Could you use problem-solving? What about acknowledging feelings? Would choices help? This situation seemed too complicated for a simple fix. We explored all possibilities. Tommy’s mother took lots of notes. The following week she could hardly wait to tell us how it went:

The first thing I decided was that I had to change my whole attitude. Instead of being on the school’s side, I had to be on my child’s side. I’d stop trying to convince Tommy that homework is “good for him” or “not really such a big deal if he’d only get down to it.” I kept the thought in my mind that for an active kid like Tommy, sitting down to homework after a long day at school really did feel like torture, especially with his learning disabilities.

I told him I needed his help in solving the homework problem. I said, “I hate having this battle every night. I find myself screaming at you and getting all angry and frustrated, and I don’t want to do that anymore.”

Then I spent a long time acknowledging his feelings, the way we practiced in the group. I said things like “It’s a really difficult problem. Here you are coming home each day after six and a half long hours at school, and then you’re supposed to sit down and do even more schoolwork. That stinks! You’d rather watch TV and relax, or run around, or play video games, or eat—anything but more schoolwork. It’s not as if you don’t work hard when you have an interesting assignment. Like with that egg-drop lab. You spent all afternoon working on your contraption.”

Tommy looked suspicious at first, but then he got more enthusiastic, nodding as I went on. Then I said, “The problem is, the school can really give you a hard time if you don’t do any homework, and I don’t want that to happen. So we have to find the least painful way to get through this. We need ideas! What could we try that might work?” I got a piece of paper and I wrote “Horrible Homework Ideas” on top.

I started out the list with some outrageous ideas, because Tommy loves humor. It is really the way to his heart. So I wrote, “Tell them the dog peed on it.” Tommy said, “Yeah!” Then he suggested, “Say Emily [his little sister] peed on it!” I wrote it down. Then he offered, “Use a mind-wipe laser like in Men in Black, so they’ll forget they assigned it.” I added, “Pray for a snowstorm on heavy homework nights.” Tommy said, “Pray for a blackout if it’s too warm for snow.”

I decided the mood was right for a few more realistic ideas.

Me: Start homework after you have a snack.

Me: Do it in the kitchen while I’m making dinner.

Tommy: Eat ice cream while doing homework. (He knows he’s not allowed to have ice cream before dinner!)

Tommy: Eat three raisins after each spelling word.

Me: Do five jumping jacks after five math problems.

Tommy: Do HW while watching TV.

Me: Do it while listening to music.

Me: Set the timer and stop when it rings.

Me: Maybe you can write the longer assignments on the computer. (Tommy said that wasn’t allowed, but I said we had to put down all the ideas, so we left it in with a question mark.)

We looked over our list. Tommy laughed heartily at the first few ideas, and said, “I think we need something a little bit more practical, Mom.” So I crossed them out. I also crossed out the TV idea, because I thought that would be too distracting. Tommy really liked the idea of the timer. I’m sure that one of the reasons he refuses to start homework is that he finds so many ways to distract himself that it goes on forever, and that is all he does until bedtime. The school says the standard is sixty minutes a night for a sixth grader, so we decided that we would set the timer for twenty minutes of math, then twenty minutes of English, and twenty minutes of reading, which we would do together. If the timer went off before he was finished, I’d write a note to the teacher if he had worked steadily. Tommy was really excited about this idea. He also liked the idea of working to music.

Here are the results. I no longer ask him about homework as soon as he gets off the bus.

I wait until after his snack. Then I say something like “Twenty vocabulary words to look up? That’s a lot! Three pages of math? Ugh! Twenty sentences? Well, how many do you think you could bear to do? Five or seven?”

When I start dinner I call him inside for homework. He spends some time choosing certain songs to listen to on his iPod during homework, and setting out his snacks. Then we start the timer. It helps him to know that there’s an end to the ordeal. He often surprises me by going beyond the time to finish up his work. “Just two more sentences, Ma. I can do it!” Sometimes he quits when the timer rings, but then will finish up in the morning before the bus comes. I never would have thought of leaving homework until the last minute as a good idea, but I am amazed at how much more efficiently he can work after a night’s sleep.

But that’s not all. I wrote a letter to his teachers saying, “I appreciate your support and my husband and I are very grateful that you took the time to discuss Tommy’s issues with us. After the conference with you, we all had a long talk about how to improve the homework situation. One of the things we concluded is that Tommy gets overwhelmed and resists doing homework partly because it takes him so long to do it. Part of our new plan is to put a time limit on the homework, so that it isn’t as overwhelming to him. We feel this is the way to get him back on the right track. I hope you will support us in this endeavor!

“In addition, we plan to have Tommy use the computer when he has more than one written assignment in a given night. He can practice his handwriting with shorter assignments like spelling words and definitions. This way, we will get the best of both worlds: more motivation from Tommy, and regular handwriting practice without tears.”

The teacher actually agreed! He has never been flexible with Tommy in the past. But I guess the way I put it was hard to resist. This has made our lives so much more livable!

The group beamed and applauded. It was a lot to absorb. I thought I’d better summarize. “So when it comes to homework,” I said, “here are your new strategies.”

1. Be on your child’s side. Acknowledge his feelings!

2. Problem-solve. Consider everything.

3. Be your child’s advocate. Communicate with the teacher when homework gets overwhelming. Don’t worry about what other people’s kids are doing.

Session 4—Encouraging Autonomy

Probably the hands-down favorite of parents in this session is the simple substitution of a choice for a command. Kids usually respond with enthusiasm to choices. Not only can we feel good about encouraging our children to become independent individuals; we get a little cooperation on the side. Not a bad collateral benefit!

Don’t Fence Me In

With some kids (mine, for example) the choice needs to be open-ended.

Me: Dan, I can’t let you cut the carpet with your scissors. Do you want to cut paper or cardboard?

Dan: No!

Me: Well, I don’t want my carpet cut. What else can you cut with the scissors?

Dan gets a gleam in his eye. He looks around. “I can cut string, I can cut tissues, I can’t cut the laundry . . . I KNOW, I can cut weeds!” He runs outside.

Another one:

Me: Dan, don’t throw that ball in the house. (He throws it again, predictably I might add.)

Me: I can see you’re in a throwing mood. You can throw a balloon in the house or you can throw the ball outside.

Dan: I’ll throw my paper plane in the house.

Me: Oh, I didn’t think of that.

Up a Tree

A father shared this encounter:

My son’s eleven-year-old friend Aiden was visiting. When his older brother came to take him home, Aiden was up in the top of our maple tree. His brother ordered him to come down . . . now! Aiden refused. I tried to help. I explained to Aiden that it really was time to go, and he shouldn’t make his brother wait. Aiden said, “I’m staying in my tree!”

Then I thought, this kid loves to joke around, so I called up, “Aiden you have a choice. You can come down very, very slowly like a three-toed sloth or . . . you can jump down fast like a monkey. Aiden yelled, “Monkey!” and jumped out of the tree.

The cartoon that caused parents to protest was the one about not asking too many questions. “But if I don’t ask,” they complained, “I don’t find out anything!” Even though we’ve all experienced for ourselves just how unwelcome those questions can be (for example, Tell me all about your vacation. How many places did you visit? Did you have fun? Make any new friends? How much money did you spend? Are you going back next year?), it’s still hard to just sit there and say nothing, especially when we’re dying to know! Besides, not asking could seem uncaring.

Here’s one alternative to interrogation that I use when I want to encourage communication. Everyone who tried it liked it.

An Invitation to Talk

Instead of asking “How was your class trip? Did you have fun?” Or “How did your PowerPoint presentation go? Did the class like it? What did the teacher say?” substitute an invitation to talk:

“I’d love to hear about your class trip when you’re ready to tell about it.” Or “I’m interested to know how your presentation went. Come tell me about it when you’re in the mood.”

Parents found that often their child would approach them a few minutes, or even hours, later saying, “I’m ready to tell now. Do you want to hear?”

Session 5—Praise

One of the challenges that came up in this session was how to summon the genie of praise when the first thing that leaps to our lips is criticism. I admitted to the group that when my son lost his cell phone at the mall I really wanted to rip into him: “How can you be so casual about such an expensive thing? You knew that it slips out of those gym pants pockets when you sit down, because it’s happened before. Why would you not either get a clip for it or wear different pants? Do you realize how much it will cost to replace?”

But when I looked at the woeful expression on his face, I was unable to muster up a scolding. I thought about all the things I have lost, and how upset I felt when I lost something valuable. How awful it would be to have someone kicking me when I was down. So I praised him instead. (With description instead of evaluation, of course.)

“Gee, Dan, you’ve kept track of that phone for two years and never lost it. And it’s not as if it stays in your room. It’s been to school and on trips and to soccer games. It’s pretty amazing if you think of it.”

Dan said, “I’ll check the bench I was sitting on when I texted Sam.” There was a teenager at the bench holding Dan’s phone. “Did you lose this?” he asked, seeing Dan dive under the bench, obviously in search of something.

Phew! The phone was back. Dan turned to me and proclaimed, “I’m never going to wear these shorts again when I’m carrying my cell phone!”

Criticism would have torn him down and defeated him in his lowest moment. Descriptive praise gave him the strength to carry on the search and to plan to fix the problem in the future. What’s more, it demonstrates that in times of need we support rather than attack each other.

The Bad Grade

One of the parents remembered that story when she received her son’s report card:

I’m so glad you told us about your son’s cell phone. When I read Eric’s report card I was really mad at him. He was failing math, and he hadn’t given me a clue that he was struggling with it. I said, “Eric, I noticed that in the past you’ve always done pretty well in math. And you’re so good at explaining it to Joey [his younger brother] when he has trouble with his homework. Something must be happening here with this D.”

Eric started telling me he really didn’t like his teacher this year. She was always putting a lot of notes on the board, and he couldn’t write fast enough to copy the formulas before she erased them. Last year the kids had worked in groups and discussed their answers, but this year it was all lecture. We had a friendly discussion, and Eric agreed to go for after-school help if he missed the notes in class. In the past I have scolded him for a low grade and he has gotten really sullen and angry with me. He never talked with me before about what kind of problems he was having.

One temptation that parents have to watch out for is the urge to praise by comparison. Parents with more than one child found it particularly hard to resist statements like:

“You got your shoes tied without any help. The baby can’t do that.”

“Look at what a big girl you are, reading your book all by yourself. Your little sister can’t read a single word.”

“You cleaned your room without being asked. That’s more than I can say for your older brother!”

The danger here is that this kind of praise puts relationships on thin ice. Might the big brother feel threatened when his little brother learns to tie his shoes? Will his accomplishment be diminished? And how will big sister feel when the “baby” starts learning to read? And will the brothers be likely to work together and help each other out with cleanups when one’s achievement depends on the other’s failure?

Consider these alternatives:

“You got your shoes tied all by yourself. I know who will be teaching little Joey when he is ready for his big-boy shoes.”

“You are reading! I think your little sister is going to be excited when she finds out that her big sister can read to her.”

“The two of you make quite a cleanup team. Jason put the Legos away and Joel picked up all the books.”

One dad brought this story to the group:

This Is Music!

When my son was in fourth grade he learned a solo jazz piece on his saxophone to play at the school concert. He worked hard on it. He had to learn to play notes that hadn’t been taught yet by the band teacher. At the concert we were treated to a program that only a parent could love. The children squeaked and squawked through a C scale, and then “Hot Cross Buns.” Finally, my son came to the front of the stage and started to play. People were bobbing their heads and tapping their fingers. This was music! My heart swelled with pride. When I saw my son afterward I had a powerful urge to say, “You were the best one! Everybody else up there could hardly play, but you, you were great!” But I knew we weren’t supposed to do that anymore.

What I finally came up with was “You sounded so smooth and confident up there, like you were really into the music. And the audience got into it, too. I could see people swaying and tapping their toes. It was like being at a real jazz club.” How’s that for a masterpiece of descriptive praise?

The next day my son came home from school very excited. He told me that he was teaching a bunch of kids how to play his piece, because they all liked it so much. I felt pretty good about my restraint. What if I had told him that I was proud of him because he was better than all the other kids? Would he have allowed himself the experience of sharing his music with his friends?

Session 6—Freeing Children from Roles

Parents often find themselves putting their children in roles just to explain their behavior to the outside world. When you are at a relative’s house for dinner and your son rejects the entrée, you say in self-defense, “Ah, well, he’s a picky eater.” When a visiting relative talks to your daughter and she turns her face away, you feel compelled to explain, “She’s just shy.” When your five-year-old doesn’t join the others in the pool, you tell the other parents, “He is afraid of the water. He takes a long time to warm up to new things.” Of course, our kids are hearing all this and taking it to heart. “My parent sees me as a shy, picky eater who is fearful and takes a long time to warm up. Ah, so that’s who I am. I guess I’d better stay away from that pool!”

But what can we say? We can’t just sit there silently while Aunt Rose nags at Johnny about not eating the roast beef. How can we support our kids, while not making them feel stuck in a role, and simultaneously politely fend off well-meaning friends and relatives?

A very useful phrase that seems to do it all is “when he is ready.”

“Johnny will try a new food when he’s ready.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure Maria will talk to you when she’s ready.”

“Sammy, I know you’ll try out the swimming pool when you’re ready.”

Now your child is getting the message that you’re not pushing him to do something he’s not comfortable with, but you don’t expect him to be stuck at that stage forever. He can decide to make a change when he feels right about it.

The Olden Days

Max’s mom thought she could use this idea. She often found herself in the position of having to explain his difficult behavior to others within his earshot. She was eager to try something different. She told us:

I think this new language is having an effect. For the first time, Max stayed to play at the next-door neighbor’s house all by himself. In the past I’ve always had to stay with him. If I tried to convince him to let me do an errand, he’d cry, “No, Mommy, don’t leave me!” I used to urge him to be a big boy, but that didn’t help. Lately, I’ve just been telling him that he will do it when he is ready. It seems to have made a difference. The next day he wanted to go next door by himself again. He said to me, “Mom, remember in the olden days when I was afraid to stay at Ryan’s house?”

Isn’t that cute? We all laughed.

Who Will Carry the Hammers?

One parent reported on her experience helping out in her son’s third-grade classroom:

We were doing a book-making project. It involved hammering nails into a stack of papers to make holes for the binding, and then sewing the papers together with embroidery thread. I came to the classroom with a bag of hammers, among other supplies. We needed to transport the materials down to the gym, where we would work.

I remember that when I was in elementary school only the boys were asked to help out with physical tasks, and I always resented it. So I looked around the room and caught the eye of a thin, pale girl, and asked, “Bridget, would you like to carry the bag of hammers?” Sure enough, several boys jumped up, yelling, “I will! I will!” But Bridget shouldered the bag. As we walked down to the gym, she started to complain. The bag was too heavy. It was hurting her shoulder. She shifted her grip. Now it was hurting her hand. How much did these hammers weigh, anyway? I felt guilty. In my political zeal to be fair and feminist, I had picked this poor kid who was too frail for the task.

We spent a happy hour working on the books, and when it was time to move the supplies back to the classroom I asked who wanted to carry the hammers. Again, several boys vociferously volunteered, but Bridget grabbed the bag and said fiercely, “That’s my job!”

“But I thought it hurt your shoulder,” I said.

“I figured out a better way to carry it,” she snapped back.

Score a point for skinny girls!

The cartoon that caused the most consternation in this session was the one about not being a sore loser. Turns out that all of our children are sore losers, and that everyone thinks that they have done something terribly wrong for their kids to be so deficient in this area.

When my firstborn child was almost four years old, I bought him his first board game. I was excited. We were about to start a whole new level of interaction. I remembered my childhood game-playing days with great fondness. So we opened up Hi Ho Cherry-O with great anticipation. Dan was happy to put together the spinner and baskets, and to poke the little plastic cherries into the holes in the cardboard trees. Then we started to play.

My goodness, where was the sportsmanship? What was wrong with my child? He insisted on taking endless turns, spinning over and over until he got the number he wanted. He refused to put cherries back when the spinner landed on “spilled basket.” I soldiered on, trying to explain the concept of taking turns, winning and losing, being a good sport. Dan ignored me and got annoyed when I tried to stop him from playing his way. Fortunately, my sluggish brain caught up to reality before meltdown occurred. I gave up my quest, and Cherry-O became a favorite activity involving flicking a spinner and rearranging plastic cherries.

What I’ve come to realize, after raising three children to teenagerhood, and hearing from many parents in my groups, is that formal game playing, from sports to cards, is not a terrific activity for preschoolers. Those fond memories I had were of a much later stage in my development as a child. Three- and four-year-olds cannot comprehend why they should be made to lose, wait for someone else to have a turn, follow the unpleasant demands of a roll of the dice or the flick of a spinner. Parents worry that their children are behaving like spoiled brats. That they won’t have the proper social skills they need to have friendships if they can’t learn to be gracious losers. Give it time! A preschooler isn’t ready for that, and she doesn’t need to be.

For school-age children, games become social coin of the realm. But it still can be difficult for them to accept the idea of losing without feeling angry and discouraged. Heck, it’s difficult for many adults! One of the ways we can teach our kids the fun and satisfaction of game playing without the emotional drama is to alter the games a bit, so that the competition factor is lessened. Here are just two of the successful variations that we have come up with:

Kids love to play racing games. But there are often tears and accusations of cheating. The best purchase I made was a big stopwatch. The kids come up with some kind of challenge or obstacle course, then one of them will run while the other keeps the time. On the next round, each child tries to beat his own time. I am amazed at how well this works! You would think they’d insist on comparing, but they don’t.

When we play board games like Candyland, the one who gets around the board first is the official “first-place winner.” But the rest of the family keeps on playing. I started this tradition because it was too frustrating for the other kids not to be allowed to get to the end. I said, “I’m going to keep playing until I finish. I don’t care how many turns it takes!” Now everyone gets the satisfaction of finishing the game.

This may sound overly indulgent. But I have seen my three boys grow into teens who enjoy competitive sports, card games, computer games, and all manner of board games (at least during blackouts and “family game nights”). They are gracious winners and good losers. They modify their intensity for younger children. They laugh a lot while they play. I believe that the work I did when they were younger, racking my brain to figure out ways for them to enjoy playing without feeling like losers, helped that happen.

Our Last Session

When we meet for the last time, I ask the parents which skill they found most useful. Without fail, most say that the language of accepting feelings is what has profoundly changed their relationship with their children. It’s interesting to me that this is what they choose. Way back in session one, when we first talk about this skill, I can tell that the parents are impatient. They want to get past the touchy-feely stuff and move on to the real tricks of the trade. They accept the idea of acknowledging feelings, but what they really want to know is “Then what?” After I do all that, how do I make my child get ready for school, stop having temper tantrums, stop poking his baby sister in the eye, eat his vegetables, brush his teeth, go to bed? It really takes the whole six-week series for it to sink in. Acknowledging feelings is not the prologue; it’s the main event. All the other skills build on that foundation. Many problems evaporate without anything more. And the whole nature of the relationship is so transformed that many problems never even get started.

It is an ongoing challenge to live life without constantly contradicting the experience of those around us. Often, when we’re talking to an adult friend, we can empathize easily, without even thinking about it. We don’t try to scold or instruct or advise. We have a natural sense that this would be insulting. But sometimes, even with other adults, our instincts fail us. Empathy seems counterintuitive.

Recently, I was talking to a friend who was having some medical tests done. She told me that she was worried that she might have cancer. Every instinct told me to dismiss her fears. “Don’t even thinkthat! Of course you don’t have cancer. You’re going to be fine!” I sat in silence for a moment before I was able say, “That’s a huge worry to be carrying around.”

My friend gave a sigh of relief and said, “YES! Everyone is telling me not to worry about it. But how can you not worry?”

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s like telling someone not to look at the pink elephant in the living room.” She laughed, and the mood lightened. I was so glad I had been able to help, even just for the moment.

That knowledge is not always at the tip of my fingers, but I’m grateful it’s there when I reach for it. It gives me the starting point to connect with the people in my life—even when I’m scared or frustrated or downright enraged. It is a powerful gift my mom passed on to me.

Some Books You May Find Interesting

Axline, Virginia M. Dibs: In Search of Self. New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.

Bradley, Michael. When Things Get Crazy with Your Teen. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Cohen, Lawrence. Playful Parenting. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002.

Faber, Adele, and Elaine Mazlish. Siblings Without Rivalry. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

How to Talk So Kids Can Learn. New York: Scribner, 1996.

How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2006.

Liberated Parents/Liberated Children. New York: HarperCollins (Perennial Currents), 2004.

Fraiberg, Selma. The Magic Years. New York: Scribner, 1959.

Ginott, Haim. Between Parent and Child. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.

Between Parent and Teenager. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1969.

Teacher and Child. New York: Avon, 1975.

Gordon, Thomas. PET in Action. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Kurcinka, Mary Sheedy. Raising Your Spirited Child. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.

Leach, Penelope. Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Rogers, Carl. On Becoming a Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1961.